The Ten Idylls

“Even one’s own tradition is not one’s birthright; it has to be earned, repossessed.”
– A. K. Ramanujan

1. Tirumurukarruppatai
the six armories of murugan

Like a man with half a dozen wives,
a woman for each season,
you keep six houses. And I,
a roaming vagabond,
light a lamp in each for you.

O Lord who wears Kadamba flowers,
O Lord who rides the peacock,
O Lord whose forehead is adorned with a navaratna of gems,
forgive me, for I cannot have you as my guest. But

the compound of my heart
blazes, O Muruga.

2. Kurinchipaatu
the hero and heroine in clandestine trysts

Like the mannai creeper I will
enter your home with a sleight
only passion can evoke.

Trust me. I will sneak under your
door like floodwater. I will
enter your bed with the quiet
of moonlight.

Your mother sleeping with
your baby sisters on the verandah
will think nothing of the
ankle bell I left behind
in my haste.

3. malaipatukatam
the ancient tamil country

I may wear the garments of women
from nations I have never known
the smell of, speak the tongues
of men not my father, accent my
face with colours my grandmothers
never knew –

but in my blood, runs red ochre

4. Mathuraikkanci
victory in battle

Today the hill country became ours.
No longer will their women beat their breasts in oppari.
No longer will their elders light the pyres of their sons.

Listen, my love. Polish my bracelet with
the lion’s face and tell the jeweller
to prepare your ornaments. Ask the
priest to consult his calendar.
I will be home by Marghazhi,
before the northwesterly rains shatter the
kolam at your doorstep.

5. Mullaippattu
longing for a lover who does not return from war through the rainy season

Someone who loves me tells me
how the rains have begun,
as though I cannot see with my
own eyes the lightning rapiering
across a sky dark as my heart.

Someone who once loved me tells me
nothing. He stands in the doorway
like a shadow of himself. My ears fill
with the sound of wheels on tracks cutting
through long grass, a summer I
spent writing to him while the kurinchi blossomed
on the hills like a revelation of purple. All those
letters I will never know
if he saved.

6. Netunalvatai
praying to the goddess for his return from war

The girlfriends with whom I wove
bracelets on the riverbank
and giggled of marriage with
speak to me now with their palms
resting on the great mounds
of their bellies. By the new year,
our village will be full of little ones.

Adiathadi! I have brought hibiscus blossoms
enough to fill forests for you, garlands of
lime enough to fill orchards.
How much longer must I wait for his return?

7. Pattinappaalai
the hero’s soliloquy – he will not leave

Keep your city. Let its traders
keep their wares. I will sleep
here in the shade of the neem,
tending my cattle till the god
of the south comes. Who are
you to speak of what is good
for me – you who has never
known the sweet chaffing of
the tongue from the sugarcane
in one’s own backyard?

8. Perumpanarruppatai
telling the first king a travelogue of the heart

After she left, the sheets were stained
with the turmeric she used to tint her
skin so that she looked, always, in the way
only some women can look, as luscious
and ripe as a mango. Its smell rises to me
each night. I beat these sheets against
mortar as though they were my most
dreadful nemesis, but it never comes away.
Mornings I wake believing I am touching
the pleats of cloth around her hips.

On a sea-side to the south,
there is a blind poet who
sings to the ocean. He tells
me he has seen her,
a woman like a mango,
a white lotus in her hair.

9. Porunaraatruppadai
telling the second king a travelogue of the heart

I spat poison into a vial
and your hand in moving above it
turned it to panacea.

I hold you in the way a fisherman
would hold the sea, in the glint
of a drop of water running down
his net, in the dark peace of a ripple
he fears to touch.

I want to step into your skin –
the momentary bartering of souls.
To see what it is you see,
and what it is you don’t.

My head against your chest
your heart hammering within your ribcage,
the knowledge that only I can release you .

10. Cirupanarruppatai
telling the chieftain a travelogue of the heart

I won’t fear love.
I won’t fear love.

Hearts I have broken
and hands and words that have broken mine.
The only strangers here
are ones I already know.

I won’t fear love.
I won’t fear love.


(Poet’s note: The Ten Idylls: Although they do not follow their namesakes with regards to length or meter, this set of poems was inspired by Tamil Sangam poetry from between 300BCE and 200CE. Pattupaattu or The Ten Songs/Idylls was a collection of ten poems, each the length of a book, and each recounting a different incident, the summary of which I have taken as the root of my own original poems in this set. I was captured both by this concept and by the translations of A. K. Ramanujan, whose work along with that of others including George Hart and Martha Ann Selby set the milieu for my own interpretations of the classical. Many liberties have been taken, for instance, travelogues have been turned into travelogues of the heart. Ultimately, I wanted to find a way to recreate in my own poetry the wonder that the translations, their imagery and setting, held for me.)

Published in Witchcraft (Bullfighter Books, 2008) and Iyari (self-published chapbook, 2006)

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